A special pilgrimage to Sylvia Plath's grave

A special pilgrimage to Sylvia Plath's grave
Musician Faith Vern and artist Elise Wouters take us behind the scenes of a recent video shoot, exploring the modern day pilgrimage and the cultural, creative and personal motivations behind them.

The Faux Faux is a new solo project by Faith Vern of the Manchester punk trio, PINS. At the start of the year she visited Sylvia Plath's grave with photographer, visual artist and writer Elise Wouters, where they shot a video for a stripped-back version of Vern's single "Cold Hearted Woman" on Super 8 and recreated the polaroids Patti Smith took there during her own visit in 2012.

Watch the video below, followed by an essay from Wouter recounting their pilgrimage.

On a crisp January morning, we climb the cobbled footpath from Hebden-Bridge up to the village of Heptonstall, West-Yorkshire, in search of Sylvia Plath’s grave. While the purpose of our trip is to shoot a few rolls of film to accompany Faith’s new song, the day takes on the outline of a pilgrimage. Each step feels imbued with meaning; the journey itself becomes as significant as the grainy end result.

The winter sun hangs low above the cemetery, and the crooked headstones cast long shadows. Over 100,000 bodies are said to be buried here. In places, the grave slabs are packed so tightly they serve as paving stones, and some have even been re-used, with the old engraving facing downwards.

As we scan names and inscriptions dating back to the 1500s, I recall the Polaroid of Patti Smith in M Train taken on one of her many pilgrimages to Plath’s grave. In the self-portrait, Smith is perched next to the headstone and surrounded by shrubs of rosebay willowherb. A fellow early walker directs us away from the old church towards the more recent graveyard across the lane, where stretches of untamed grass offer some space.

Plath’s gravestone is simple, unadorned. It only stands out from the rest of the weathered markers because the grave is covered with fresh bouquets of orange tulips and yellow roses. Echoes of other pilgrims on similar voyages are everywhere: there are handwritten notes tucked into the bare earth, alongside offerings of tied ribbons, piled-up rocks and strewn pens. The most obvious evidence is visible on the headstone itself: the last name of her husband ‘HUGHES’ has been repeatedly scratched out. Fans have called for a more befitting memorial in a different location. In M Train, Smith pictures Plath’s final resting place in “New England by the sea, where she was born, where salt winds could spiral over the name PLATH etched in her native stone.”

Instead, the windswept moorlands stretch out into the valley below. A land of heather and gritstone. About a dozen miles from here is the parsonage of Haworth, where the Brontë sisters lived and wrote the majority of their work. In her poem Wuthering Heights, Plath thinks of the landscape as “that hinterland few / hikers get to.” But the area of the south Pennine hills has become a popular pilgrimage destination in its own right. Brontë Country draws in thousands of visitors from across the globe each year, keen to pay tribute to the sisters. On the paths leading to the parsonage – now a museum – the signs have directions in both English and Japanese.

People set out on pilgrimages for a myriad of reasons these days. Journeys are no longer solely religious in nature, but are often driven by cultural, artistic and deeply personal motivations. From remote villages to solitary gravestones, across footpaths and waterways, driven by a line in a book or drawn in by the echo of a song, the modern day pilgrimage has reincarnated into a way of reconnection and remembrance.

Before our trip to Heptonstall, we spun a web of our own connections, each thread enriching the one before. In “Cold Hearted Woman,” Faith cries out “God damn domestic bliss / heaven forbid I want to live.” The influence of Plath is palpable – the poet unearthed similar moments of beauty and desperation in the mundane, often using extended metaphors of domesticity as a critique and a way to survive. From Plath to Patti Smith’s Polaroids, I end up thinking about filmmaker Jonas Mekas, a friend of Smith’s. I sense echoes of his diaristic, handheld style in my own visual work, and it feels fitting to capture our journey on his signature Super8 film.

We take a moment to add our own bouquet of flowers to the grave – a bunch of vivid pink and red roses. I think of the joyous red lipstick kisses on Oscar Wilde’s grave at Père Lachaise. Faith stands underneath one of the gothic arches in her red coat; she looks bright and defiant against the desolate sandstone. Mekas used recurring motifs of colour in his 8mm films to sketch out moments of intimate vulnerability. I’m grateful that I secured two hand-spooled tapes of rare Kodak Vision 250D film; its forgiving exposure latitude brings out a warmth, even in the changing winter light.

It’s difficult to picture Plath against this backdrop, walking through the streets of Hughes’ birthplace, away from the bustle of London life in which she thrived. An exotic bird in a stone cage, trying to find a way out. “Beware / Out of the ash / I rise with my red hair / And I eat men like air.”

While the grass in the rest of the cemetery is overgrown, the shortcut towards Plath’s grave has been eroded from repeatedly being stepped on. It makes me think of Richard Long’s A Line Made by Walking, where the artist walked backwards and forwards in a field in Wiltshire until the flattened turf became visible as a line. He photographed his physical intervention within the landscape, pioneering the land art movement of the 60s.

To be a pilgrim is to be a practitioner of nostalgia. Every element of the journey, from the landscape to the objects encountered along the way, is infused with meaning. Pilgrims often mark the experience by taking a memento or leaving a temporary trace behind. Smith has compared her Polaroids to the tokens collected by pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostela, going from monastery to monastery to gather “small medals to attach to their rosary as proof of their steps.” There is an inherent romance to this process: it blends ritual with record-keeping, symbol with significance. I’ve saved a bus ticket from the stop outside Anaïs Nin’s Silverlake home and a cactus flower from the garden of Yves Saint Laurent in Marrakech. I’ve taken postcards and photobooth pictures and hotel cocktail napkins across all continents, paying homage to the writers and photographers and dreamers that I loved. This time, I shoot a Polaroid picture of the eroded shortcut to Plath’s grave – a desire path of sorts. I let the film develop in between the pages of Ariel, which I brought for the journey and which has been with me since I was fourteen. Next to it, a portrait of Faith, smiling in her red lipstick.

A pilgrimage might be an exchange with the present moment, but the past and the future are always within touching distance. In Wanderlust, Rebecca Solnit describes how a pilgrimage can stretch beyond its original destination “in search of something intangible.” This defiant drive to keep going is mirrored in the film, as the journey projects itself forwards into the future, offering a sense of hope.

In this way, the creation of the journey is as imagined as it is real; we create a world of our own, as the songs and poems and Polaroids speak to each other: “I am, I am, I am.”

The original version of "Cold Hearted Woman" is out now on the Drowned in Sound Singles Club.

Follow Faith and Elise on Instagram.

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